Mother Teresa: Joseph Taught Jesus How to Suffer
It’s perfect that St. Joseph’s Day came just seven days before Passion Sunday this year.
This Sunday we will hear how Jesus died in obedience to his Father, in heaven. This Monday we learned that it wasn’t just his heavenly Father he was obeying. He was following Joseph, too.
At least, that’s what Mother Teresa says.
When my wife and I were planning our wedding 26 years ago, we were very devoted to Mother Teresa. In fact, we sent her a wedding invitation. We also included three quotes from her on our wedding program: One about family life, one about feminine virtues — and one citing St. Joseph about the way a husband is supposed to act.
“Saint Joseph is the most wonderful example!” Mother Teresa said. “When he realized that Mary was with child, he only had to do one thing: To go to the head, to the priest and say, ‘My wife has a child, not mine.’ … They would have stoned her; that was the rule.”
Instead, she said, “He decided, ‘I’ll run away.’ And the rule was that … if he had run away and left his wife pregnant, they would stone him.” (Emphasis mine.)
Mother Teresa is no theologian, and Church authorities interpret Joseph’s decision in various ways, but Mother Teresa’s take (find the longer quote here) has informed my thinking about St. Joseph ever since.
If Mother Teresa is right, then what Jesus does in the Gospel on Passion Sunday is modeled directly on what his foster father Joseph does in today’s Gospel.
One of the Gospel readings (there are two options) for the Solemnity of St. Joseph, March 19, is the one that includes the passage in question:
After Mary “was found with child through the Holy Spirit, Joseph her husband, since he was a righteous man, yet unwilling to expose her to shame, decided to divorce her quietly” (Matthew 1:18–19).
Why would a “righteous man” divorce his wife, precisely when she is in trouble?
Fathers of the Church suggest that Joseph knew Mary wasn’t guilty of anything. Maybe, says St. Jerome, “Joseph, confident in her purity, and wondering at what had happened, covered in silence that mystery which he could not explain.”
That’s beautiful, but I like how Mother Teresa spells out what would happen next. After all, St. Joseph also had the Mosaic Law to deal with.
St. Joseph knew what the Law said: Mary, pregnant outside of wedlock, had either done wrong, or she had been wronged. Either she needed to be shamed or someone else did. Joseph chose “someone else.”
The Mosaic Law reserves sexual relations to after full marriage, and regardless of the consequence — stoning or the shame of social stigma — Joseph, being righteous, would have been determined to see the Mosaic Law fulfilled.
What would happen next? Mary’s pregnancy would soon become obvious. Joseph would be approached about it. If he continued to refuse to fault Mary or anyone else, the conclusion people would make is obvious: Joseph himself must have impregnated Mary and then cast her off.
Joseph would be the one “exposed to shame.”
So Jesus’ foster father decided to silently make himself guilty of another person’s sin, and suffer in her place.
If Mother Teresa is right, Joseph didn’t just decide to suffer for Mary — but for Mary and her unborn child. He offered himself for Jesus, too.
I like to think that Jesus remembered his dad’s deed when he stood before Pilate and the Sanhedrin and King Herod.
He knew you and I were guilty, and that our sins had to be punished. But rather than see us suffer, he made himself guilty of our sins.
When he was asked to defend himself, he said nothing — he didn’t admit guilt, because he wasn’t guilty. He didn’t profess his innocence, because that would jeopardize us. Instead he said nothing, sealing his doom and winning our freedom.
Much like Joseph planned to do for him.
“See the tender love of St. Joseph for Mary?” ended Mother Teresa’s quote in our wedding program. “He loved her so much that he would rather the people would stone him than her. This is the love that I pray for you.”